The river town of Chester and the county seat of Randolph County started its humble beginning in September 1816. The mighty Mississippi played its part in the history of Chester. The area was considered a comfortable place when John McFerron bought a 47-acre triangular tract of land from the government and then built a cabin on it. McFerron was a judge and he also represented Illinois as a senator during the first legislature that convened after admitting Illinois to the Union. He sold the area to John Griffith on October 8 who later sold it to James L. Lamb and Thomas Mather in June 1829.
However, Samuel Smith is given the honour of founding Chester that was formally known as Smiths Landing. He built the first ever home in Chester, began the construction of a mill and also established a ferry system 13 years after McFerron bought the land initially. Smith’s wife was Jane Thomas, and she was a native of Chester England. She came into the town with Swanwick family and gave the name of her hometown to the new settlement. Smith kept and managed ferried passengers across the river on a flatboat and a hotel.
The primary commodity of Chester was castor oil, usually used as a lubricant. There were castor bean presses in other towns, but Chester had the advantage of river transportation. Shipment was transported to New Orleans, St. Louis and also to far away from England. In 1830 the settlement increased, and there were a machine shop, iron foundry, and several large stores. The commodities lose it importance later as the petroleum industry grew and flourished. Old wood burning steamboats also did a brief business in the town. In 1834 the first brick house was built by Amzi Andrews.
By 1837, Nathan Cole started operating a small sawmill that has a corn-grinding attachment. A few years after, he converted this company into flour mill that became Cole Milling Company now known as Con Agra. The company was the first to install electric generator using a lot of power for street light, thereby making Chester one of the first towns to have an electric street light. This generator used in Ford Museum Michigan.
In 1838, there were three grocery stores, one physician, two ministers, five shops, one castor oil factory, four warehouses, one gristmill and steam saw, and 280 inhabitants. We speculate that the landmark stone might have been built around that time under Thomas Mather ownership. The residents of Chester solved their transportation problem by using the river as their highway. The William Garvin travelled the river on a regular tri-weekly packer between St. Louis and Chester. Chester was a favourite stop for boat passengers and river men. Charles Dickens stayed here with his wife on April 11, 1842.
St. Louis flats, a two-story building was built in 1892, and it was used as an apartment for many years. The building was sold and was renamed the Landmark Inn. After a lot of legal battles with the railroad, the Landmark has witnessed a lot of ownership change. The building was later turned into a restaurant and memorabilia from the area was also added to the building. In the 1980’s the landmark became “The party place of Mississippi”.
In 1844, a schoolhouse was used as a courthouse and a record room temporarily before the new one was built in 1948. The County seat was relocated from Kaskaskia to Chester the same year. Archives Building formally called the stone annex was built in 1863, and the building is now used as a museum. Check out this website to know more about the history of Chester.